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The Battle of Plataea

The battle of Plataea, 479 BC

    The Persian fleet was stopped at Salamis, but the Persians still controlled northern Hellas. Xerxes had gone back to Persia, but he had left behind a huge army to control northern Hellas, and to destroy the last Greek armies. The situation did not look very hopeful for Hellas, and it became even worse when Boeotia decided that it was safer to collaborate with the Persians instead of fighting them. In face of this the unity of Salamis began to look a little hollow.

    Again there was a disagreement between Athens and Sparta. Sparta believed that it was safe for the time being now the Persians did not have a fleet anymore to protect and provision them. That is why Sparta felt quite safe behind their Isthmus wall. Like always they were not in favor of an offensive war as they feared a revolt of their helots, but Athens insisted on an attack on the Persian army. Athens had a good reason for this: the Athenians wanted their homes back in security. It took a long winter of bitter argument before Athenian threats were effective. The Greeks formed an army and marched into Boeotia under the leadership of the Spartan Pausanias.

The commanders

    The Persians were no longer commanded by there high king Xerxes as he had returned to Persia: Mardonius was now in command. Mardonius was the son-in-law of the father of Xerxes, Darius, and was in command of the fleet that was destroyed at the peninsula of Athos. Darius was clearly not satisfied with the achievements of Mardonius during this first expedition as he was not part of the next expedition against Hellas. However, Mardonius was a capable leader who knew what he was doing. Xerxes noticed this and restored his position in the Persian command. The early departure of Xerxes was even a good thing for the Persians as Mardonius was a much better commander than Xerxes ever was.

    Pausanias was in command of the Greek combined forces. The Spartan king Leonidas left a young son, Pleistarchos, behind after his heroic death at Thermopylae. Sparta had a very peculiar form of government and the constitution said that there should be two kings to prevent that one of them would abuse his power. In reality one of the kings was much more important than the other one. Pleistarchos would become this important king, but he was much too young so a regent was installed for the time being. This man was Pausanias, a cousin of the hero Leonidas. Just like Leonidas was Pausanias a capable leader who had knowledge of tactics, and who knew how to correctly value the weaknesses of his army and those of the hostile army. Unfortunately he did not have the same goals as Leonidas as history will learn us.

Phase one: skirmish in the foothills   

The Battle at Plataea
Persians

Greeks

Hoplites

38,000

40,500

Cavalry

10,000

None

Peltasts

None

70,000

    Both parties had chosen their positions very well. Mardonius had chosen the battlefield at Plataea, south of Thebes, because the plains at the south and west of his camp are very suitable for his cavalry. Like they always did, the Persians had a large number of horsemen, while the Greek did not have any, so Mardonius' strategy was build around this type of unit. Pausanius realized this, and the danger of the fast Persian cavalry, so he installed himself in the foothills south of the Persians where their cavalry could not do much damage.

    None of the parties really felt like leaving their position in order to attack the enemy, so both of them waited. Of course neither the Greeks nor the Persians could wait forever. The gigantic Persian army was bound to get problems with their provisions, at some stage now their fleet had retreated. The Greeks had the same problem, but they had it right from the start of the battle. Pausanias remained cool however and kept his army in the foothills of the mountain Cithaeron. It is Mardonius who made the first attack.


    The Persian cavalry left their fortified encampment and galloped through the plains, crossed the river Asopos, and attacked the Greeks in the foothills. Mardonius knew that this was a dangerous move, but he hoped to lure down the Greeks into the plains where the remainder of his army could finish the job. The Greeks however were prepared, and determined to maintain their strong position. The Persian cavalry did not manage to break the Greek formations, and got into serious problems. Mardonius is wise enough not to use his main force to help the cavalry, and ends his attack. When the Persians are back in their camp they realize that they have lost many brave men, including their commander. Mardonius came to the conclusion that his cavalry could not be used for a charge as long as the Greeks stayed in the foothills, but he could still use them to cut the Greeks off from their provisions.

Phase two: entering the plains

    The water reserves of the Greeks decrease with every day and Pausanias is forced to change his position. He moves his army into the plains, and marches around Plataea where he is much closer to the Asopos ridge where there is plenty of water. He knows that he is much more vulnerable now he is in the plains, but at least a small row of hills between him and the Persians prevents a frontal attack of the Persian cavalry. Mardonius still does not attack as he hopes that the lack of food will weaken the Greeks some more, especially after his cavalry had stopped a Greek convoy of 500 wagons. His supplies on the other hand are also decreasing because the Greeks managed to cut off his supplies with guerilla activities.

    The next three days several skirmishes took place between the Greeks and the Persian cavalry. None of these small conflicts was won by a party, but the Persians gained a small victory: they managed to poison the water supplies of the Greeks. Pausanias waited for ten more days but after that he had no longer a choice, the Greeks had almost ran out of supplies. Luckily for the Greeks remained Pausanias remarkably cool and he refuse to attack the Persians. Such an attack on the Persian fortifications would have been disastrous for the Greeks, but the alternative was certainly not without any danger either. He wanted to retire to a position which was closer to his old position. There would be enough water at this new position, it would give him more protection from the mountains, and the Greek convoys no longer would need to cross the plains in order to reach the Greek army.


    At night Pausanias starts this maneuver which he makes look as if they are fleeing. He sends his inexperienced troops towards the new position while the more experienced fighters stayed behind to prevent a possible Persian attack on the retreating forces. Unfortunately lost the different Greek unit contacts because of the difficulties and the confusion of this maneuver at night. The inexperienced troops get lost and most of them form their camp in front of the city walls of Plataea. At dawn the experienced Greek left and right wing retreat towards Plataea to reunite with the other fighters.

Phase three: Mardonius attacks

    Mardonius sees that the Greek army is split up, and he got the impression that his enemy was retreating because of political problems. His advisors had told him that it was definitely not unlikely that the Greek Poleis would argue about the tactics after a while, and that they would retreat to their own cities. They also knew that it was not really in the Greek nature to cooperate with other cities. Mardonius had even invested a lot of diplomacy and conspiracy in the hope to achieve this goal. However, the Greek disorganization had a tactical nature, and when the Persian army attacked they were surprised by the Greek resistance.


    The Athenians who had formed the left wing of the army were still in the plains at the moment of the attack, and they were pushed back by the Persian cavalry. The inexperienced troops who were already at Plataea noticed this and moved forwards to help their Athenian friends. Mardonius on his turn attacked the Athenians and the fresh troops with a Boeotian phalanx, who had collaborated with the Persians.

    At the right wing the Greeks were also in a difficult position as the Spartan phalanx was attacked by Mardonius himself with his cavalry and Persian foot soldiers. The Spartans manage to stop the Persian attack, they then focused on the Persian foot soldiers already in the foothills. The Corinthian hoplites, and their Peloponnesian allies, quickly left the protection of the city walls of Plataea and stormed forwards towards the Spartans. Mardonius commanded his troops to shoot all their arrows at the enemy, and the Greeks are forced to take cover behind their shields.

    This was the moment Pausanias had been waiting for. The Thegians, followed by the Spartans, charged forward and managed to push their way out of the mess of this bloody battle towards complete victory. The Persian left wing is split up after the Spartans had killed Mardonius, and the Persian battle-array starts to fall apart. The Persian center, under the leadership of Artabazos moves forward but they can only conclude that their army is collapsing. He orders to blow the horn for the retreat, and crosses the Asopos ridge while he is being pursued by the Spartans. At the same time the Athenians manage to defeat the Boeotians with the help of the reinforcements.

    The Spartans did not have the equipment to attack a fortress but after they had destroyed the Persian left wing they were so convinced of their own invincibility that they attacked the Persian fortress nevertheless. The rest of the Greek army had caught up with the Spartans, and joined in on the attack on the Persian encampment. The fortress got destroyed and only a few Persians managed to get away. The victory was complete.

The results of the battle

    Another, and even bigger, Persian army in Hellas had refused to acknowledge the leadership of Mardonius and was already retreating towards the Hellespont at the time of the battle. The Greeks took Thebe, which was the leader of the collaboration of Boeotia with the Persians, after a short siege and killed all political leaders. A large part of the Persian treasures, which they had hoped to use to solve the problems with their provision, fell in the hands of the Greeks thanks to this victory.

    On the same day the Greek fleet had quickly crossed the Aegean and landed on the Ionian coast at Mycale. They routed the Persians who opposed them, and destroyed the remains of the Persian fleet. This way the Aegean was in the hands of the Greeks again, and the Ionian Greeks who were forced to serve in the Persian army choose the side of the Greeks and helped them during the last battles. Ironically enough an Ionian revolt had formed the start and the end of the Persian wars...

    Pausanias attempted to establish Spartan power over Hellas after the battle at Plataea, and even collaborated with his former enemies, the Persians, in an attempt to realize his dream. The other Greeks found out about this conspiracy and Pausanias was killed.

 


 

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